Twenty years ago, in March 2003, we were getting ready to move. Hubby Doug and I had spent the previous fifteen months living in “the cabin”: the little studio apartment adjoining the barn we’d built two years prior. We were in the process of settling down on our rural property in Colorado’s north-central Fremont County, living in the cabin as we built the house. A woodburning stove delivered heat, we relied on a hot plate for cooking, and our bed doubled as couch and reading chair—as well as hiding the plastic bins in which we stowed canned goods and clothes. Although we enjoyed the luxury of a bathroom with in-floor heat, we were entering our second spring living in a single room: cabin fever was well advanced.
Just up the hill, 240 steps away, an entire house awaited: bedrooms separate from the living room and kitchen, full-sized appliances, top-floor offices with wraparound views. The building contractors had two more days of work scheduled, but had already hauled away the roll-off dumpster (much to the dismay of the local ravens) and port-a-john. Our final inspection was scheduled for Wednesday, March 19; we planned to clean and organize for a couple of days and start moving in over the weekend. I had already used the new washer and dryer, having determined that schlepping baskets of laundry up and down the hill was more convenient than hauling dirty clothes to the laundromat in town, 30 miles away.
The snow started around noon on March 17. We gave up trying to keep the driveway plowed the following day, resigning ourselves to being snowed in. Under the circumstances, the tight quarters of the cabin felt snug. A raging wind out of the north battered the wall next to our heads, but we had wood for the stove, a sufficient pantry stashed under the bed, and a pretty unbelievable wine cellar stacked in boxes in the hall. On the eve of our second night of listening to the wind scream as it hurled snow around the low-slung building, I commented in my journal that we enjoyed truffle risotto with a bottle of Anderson Conn Valley Pinot Noir for dinner.
The next morning, my alarm clock was the expletive Doug uttered on opening the door. The swirling winds that had plastered the windows white had finally calmed, leaving the walled garden substantially filled with snow. We suited up in coats, boots, hats, and gloves and, skirting the bulk of a drift that would have reached my forehead if I stood in it, wallowed over to the gate. That aperture to the outside world was immobilized by drifts on the far side, so Doug gave me a leg up over the wall and tossed me a scoop shovel. After marveling briefly at the front wall of the barn—crusted entirely white, like a set in Doctor Zhivago—I started digging.
An account of the long trek from the cabin to the new house would become a set-piece in the stories we were starting to accumulate about life in these parts. A walk that normally takes a few minutes was a half-hour thrash, as we floundered from one snowy trough to the next. We figured the average depth approached three feet, with the tallest drifts looming almost triple that—although the drunken meander of our path took us across bare ground in a few places.
In the two decades since, the house has been the envelope into which we fold our days. Within these walls, we prepare our meals and clip our toenails (not at the same time); we sleep and work, read and watch TV, host friends (too rarely these past few years) and celebrate and mourn. We talk about the horses, plans for the day, the news, finances, plans for the future. We drink tea and wine (not at the same time) and clean and putter, leave and come home, avoid projects and, occasionally, dive into them.
We live in the house, in other words, which is what people do in houses, for the most part. But my awareness of the land that surrounds us—call it landscape, call it environment, call it place or geography or retired ranchland—infiltrates and shapes this living in ways I’d like to think are unusual.
One of the things I unpacked into this echoey and comparatively vast space twenty years ago was a budding self-image as writer of place and a determination to pay attention to where I am. Living in the sort of location where most of us go to “get away from it all” offers endless opportunities to contemplate dynamics between people and aspects of the world that aren’t built according to human preferences and economies. One of the surprises of living in a sparsely developed area, to me, is not how sharply evidence of the constructed domain—the roads and houses, ponds and power lines; the fences and mining leach-heaps, jet roar and wind-borne traffic rumble—stands out, but how easy it is—how natural—to want to edit those features out. Ten years after we moved into the house, I published a collection of essays that emerged from running such ideas through slow iterations of reflection and revision. In advance of the release of that book, ten years ago this fall, I launched this blog as a way of continuing to exercise that mindset.
To my considerable good fortune, the result has been an entanglement of my sense of “being home” with the place in which the house was built as much as with the building itself. I’ve come to think of going outside to see what’s happening as part of my job: a pretty good gig.
Like many other rural residents, however, I find that the imperatives of earning a living sometimes involve picking up work off the property. That mundane reality consumes energy and time is one of the everyday complaints of people who like to write: overcoming or resisting distractions is a perennial challenge and frequent topic of tautological scribing. Long story short, for months I’ve found myself busy elsewhere, and drained while I’m at home.
A desire, if not a determination, to write surged at times. Noodling over a possible blog entry late last summer, I took pictures of the Slender-tube Skyrocket that now bloom outside the kitchen windows in July and August. I thought I would write about the extended process of collecting seed and trying to get plants established on the skirt of barren ground around the house after construction was complete. I’ve touched on this idea before, but I hoped to dig deeper into the temporal aspects of the topic, writing about the sense of growing more rooted to my place. I’d even settled on a title, which is, for me, often one of the most vexing aspects of pulling together a self-contained essay; I would call this piece “The Long Haul.”
But the ephemeral nature of the flowers’ blooming soon made the idea feel dated. The delicate trumpets that weren’t eaten by deer faded, dropped, and set seed. Once the snow began to fly, featuring summer wildflowers felt out of step.
Months later—on Christmas Eve, to be exact—I was picking orange Sun Gold cherry tomatoes off dried vines I’d strung up in the greenhouse back in October. I was making mental notes for a new post, this one having to do with the adaptations necessary for sane gardening in a short-growing-season environment like mine. Conveniently, I already had a title: “The Long Haul.”
Outside events continued to impose, however. I had preserved the tomatoes in the food dehydrator, and as January advanced the topicality of my topic began to seem similarly juiceless.
January departed and February wore on. The theme of long hauling was taking on a different meaning, and not one I was altogether eager to explore in public. As March approached, it occurred to me that the twentieth anniversary of our move to the house was approaching: another, and newly apropos, rendition of The Long Haul.
I was sure I wouldn’t miss my goal of posting in March.
I find myself increasingly befuddled by the relentlessness of digital immediacy—by the sense that online mediums urge a reactive pounce on matters of the day, or of the moment. As a slow writer with a talent for procrastination, I’m ill-suited to producing rapid-fire (or, let’s face it, brief) dispatches. But one of the payoffs of living where I do is the ongoing opportunity to note the rhythms of the world as it operates on biological and seasonal—even geological—rhythms.
And so, I remind myself, the Skyrocket will bloom, again. Next month, I’ll sow a garden, and it will grow then fade then freeze, again. As long as I’m paying attention, I’ll notice details and begin to trace connections. I’ll be inspired or confounded or upset or delighted and sometimes I’ll muster the discipline and patience to attempt a translation of sensation and emotion into language arranged and presented for others’ eyes. After a long hiatus, I’m settling back in to my office—now cluttered with decades’ worth of books and papers, no longer bare and echoey—and coaching myself not to fret overmuch about how often the writing completes itself. The notion of the long haul has hovered at the periphery of my awareness for months, and it’s finally time to contemplate what it really means.